Insight from Paul Graham

This is a short essay on his website. Because it’s so brief, I figured I would reproduce it here in its entirety.

People who are powerful but uncharismatic will tend to be disliked. Their power makes them a target for criticism that they don’t have the charisma to disarm. That was Hillary Clinton’s problem. It also tends to be a problem for any CEO who is more of a builder than a schmoozer. And yet the builder-type CEO is (like Hillary) probably the best person for the job.

I don’t think there is any solution to this problem. It’s human nature. The best we can do is to recognize that it’s happening, and to understand that being a magnet for criticism is sometimes a sign not that someone is the wrong person for a job, but that they’re the right one.

He couldn’t have said it better.


Old article on how people are defacing birds. I used to be squarely pro-bird, but after being nearly hit a couple times, my opinions are changing.

USC’s school of social work is in free fall after partnering with an edtech startup and offering online degrees. – This looks like the worst case scenario for universities trying to increase revenue by offering online programs. This was a surprise to me as I believed USC had no problem with finances and would be unswayed by the large enrollment numbers in digital graduate programs. I was wrong. The article implies the budget crunch in the department is the result of a poor deal signed with 2U (the edtech company), but it hints at characteristic misbehavior (the former dean of the social work school is under a criminal investigation regarding a donation from a politician) from Trojans.

Weekly links

Instead of posting groups of links as I see fit, I’m going to experiment with compiling everything and making one post during the weekend. — highly recommended. I love finding blogs written by thoughtful people working in private industry. —This is just silly. — not entirely convincing due to limited scope of data and lack of control for “regional inflation” (scare quotes because I am making up the term. It may or may not be a legitimate economic concept). — The episode gets away from student debt towards the end when Dubner is just questioning Daniels on his political career, but it is still a good episode. Income share agreements look promising as a way to improve how people pay for college. Yet, they are not without detractors. No matter your stance on the degree to which private industry should get involved, it’s hard to argue against ISAs being a better form of financing college rather than debt.

Thoughts on Slowness

There’s plenty of material out there that tells us to take our foot off the gas and apply the breaks, or at least coast. In fact, so much has been written about “taking a breath” or “reflecting” that the terms are in danger of losing their potency. We all know how mentally and physically damaging it is to be busy all of the time, but my own anecdotal evidence doesn’t support anyone taking this advice to heart among the surfeit of articles/podcasts/talks telling us chill for a second.

This is a shame because while busyness may make us better at something in some narrow sense, I think it makes us less interesting on the whole. When I am my busiest, I understand I am not a person capable of having a good conversation with anyone, not necessarily for lack of time, but mental resources. My mind is always elsewhere, and this makes me about as engaging conversationally as a distracted cat or someone desperately trying resist the effects of anesthesia.

Yet, this post is about slowness, not busyness. The two are related, for sure, but I’d like to talk about the two types of slowness I have observed.

First is a kind of phenomenal slowness. [1] This is the sort you may experience lounging by the pool on a vacation, or just after you’ve woken up to a damp foggy morning while camping. It is characterized by feeling as if the world has actually slowed down, or you are in such a state that your corner of it is moving at a suitable pace regardless of what’s happening elsewhere. You can also describe this as the feeling that accompanies relaxation, content boredom, or general downtime. Crucially, it is not the same as grogginess or exhaustion, two other states in which we may feel “slow.” Phenomenal slowness is always a welcome feeling. I imagine it’s the state monks and people that have flip phones live in.

The second type is historical slowness. Historical slowness is the fact that most important things happen very slowly relative to our own lives. These things can have global significance, such as shifting demographics, the formation of national policy, or wars. We’re still attempting to desegregate schools more than sixty years after Brown v Board of Education, and religious influences from as far back as the 19th century are able to influence current levels of literacy [2]. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and even on a personal level, neither are relationships, bodies of knowledge, or skills. Friendships are created with consistent interaction over sustained periods of time. Trust is built much the same way. Likewise, we don’t skim a Wikipedia page and have any deep knowledge on a particular subject. That takes lots of reading, practice, reflection, and time.

Phenomenal slowness is a mental state and historical slowness is a concept, but I think there’s a relationship between them. Being familiar with historical slowness can make you more likely to experience its phenomenal cousin. Recognizing everything important moves slowly, even things in your own life, releases pressure on your time. If the maximum rate important things can move during a given stretch of time is low, then there is no reason to use a lot of that time for the important thing. It is futile, even irrational to expend more time. Historical slowness dictates that things only move so fast, so you’re better off doing other activities, like those that lead to phenomenal slowness. Taking a walk or a break can be the direct the result of the knowledge that the opportunity cost of your time isn’t all that high.

It’s possible you can have historical slowness without phenomenal slowness, or vice-versa, but I do think one begets the other. Overall, I think slowness in all its forms is an underrated concept, no matter how many NYTimes smarter living stories are written on how we need to chill the hell out.

[1] Phenomenal in the sense it is perceived through experience.

[2] There’s another paper I remember that studied the placement of churches in (I think) 17th century Brazil or another Latin American country and established a causal relationship between those institutions and contemporary earnings/literacy. I can’t find it at the moment, but I think it’s another good example.

Bullshit and Ideology + a little about swedish politics

A study I came across today courtesy of MR.

Swedish researchers mapped the relationship between political ideology and receptivity to bullshit. I’ll let the abstract speak for itself.

Among Swedish adults (N = 985), bullshit receptivity was (a) robustly positively associated with socially conservative (vs. liberal) self-placement, resistance to change, and particularly binding moral intuitions (loyalty, authority, purity); (b) associated with centrism on preference for equality and even leftism (when controlling for other aspects of ideology) on economic ideology self-placement; and (c) lowest among right-of-center social liberal voters and highest among left-wing green voters

(emphasis added)

Note the study happened in Sweden, not the United States. This is actually part of why they were able look into bullshit receptivity as it relates to social versus economic liberal/conservative beliefs. Apparently, Sweden has a varied political field with parties that range the social and economic political spectrum (probably like the rest of Europe, but it’s funny thinking about this as an American).

  From the study. What variation!
From the study. What variation!

This allowed them to compare results between social conservatives that may have different economic perspectives, and really try to isolate if a tendency is closely associated with a specific political viewpoint.

The article is also good for a brief review of the literature surrounding a lot of this type of reserach. There’s a lot of recent psychological work that is focuses on an individual’s epistemic style (need for certainty, order, tends to reason intuitively, etc) and moral judgements that is covered.

Some interesting things I came across:

insofar as a certainty- and security-oriented epistemic style is associated with a lack of analytic, deliberative forms of thinking (Jost & Krochik, 2014), this account predicts that bullshit receptivity is associated with right-wing ideology in the social domain but with left-wing ideology in the economic domain, particularly among persons low in political engagement.

The reasoning is that those in need of epistemic certainty will tend to process issues of economic policy through a personal lens, and prefer laws that can give financial security to a greater portion of the population.

Pfattheicher and Schindler (2016) found that bullshit receptivity predicted general conservative self- placement and favorable ratings of Republican presidential candidates (especially Ted Cruz) in the United States

The study also confirms, through claiming bullshit receptivity was highest among green voters, anecdotal beliefs about the level of self-reflection members of far-left parties may engage in on a daily basis.

Green party (which is on the left) stood out in terms of their belief in alternative medicine (including acu- puncture, energy healing, and homeopathy), astrology, anthroposophy (Waldorf education and biodynamic growth), electric allergy, paranormal phenomena, and the moon land- ing conspiracy theory, although they had strong faith in the scientific method, the theory of evolution, and the reality of global warming

This description seems to recall images of young, LA/West Coast liberals that love to proselytize progressive views but will also try to convince you of the predictive powers of astrology. We may make fun of conservatives believing in “Q” or the deep state, but having faith in healing crystals is equally epistemologically irresponsible to me.

What I’m Reading

The Economist

I received a print subscription for Christmas and have been enjoying it. Beyond a little bit of the NYTimes , this represents my primary news source. I particularly appreciate the global focus as I am slowly working to cure my ignorance of everything that happens outside of North America. Somewhat counterintuitively, it also gives me more impetus to stay up-to-date with domestic political affairs. I am beginning to reach an understanding of America’s outsize role in the world and the ramifications of our actions on global welfare. If you care about the well-being of all people, you should care about the decisions of the American government.

Essays on Patriotism

I’m still working through these. Kateb’s piece is especially interesting as it tries to investigate the source of patriotism and duty. If the government exists to serve the people, why would we be obliged to die for it?

The Management Myth by Mathew Stewart

When I heard an ex-philosopher became a management consultant and then wrote a book about the experience, I had to buy it. The book is particularly valuable for its historical exploration of the origins of management theory. Apparently, the two most foundational figures in management thought, Frederick Winslow Taylor and Elton Mayo, were total frauds. Both fabricated stories and explanations to support their points and on the basis of this ended up immortalized in business schools across the nation. Business as an academic discipline, it seems, lays on shaky foundations.

I have yet to finish it, but the book has been enjoyable thus far.

Girls vs. Boys

Lisa Damour in the NYTimes

Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.

Damour sees this fact and makes the argument that the same traits that propel females to academic success hold them back in the workforce. She emphasizes they tend to be more industrious, prudent, and better performers academically than their male counterparts, but lack the confidence that can propel them to leadership positions. Females are perfectionists. By contrast, males tend to put in minimal effort for the same academic marks. According to Damour, this means they can “see how much they can accomplish simply by counting on their wits,” and build confidence in their abilities. Accordingly, the solution to this problem is to get females to focus on “economy of effort” in school rather than fall prey to the law of diminishing returns.

I have seen what Damour describes in my own academic experience. I know many perfectionists that don’t take anything less than 8 hours of studying a day for an answer but still seem terribly insecure about their own abilities. I agree with Damour on everything except the corrective action.

Females, ceteris paribus, are more diligent and insightful than their average male counterparts. Damour links to some studies illustrating this. I will not speculate on the origins of these difference, but my anecdotal evidence, along with the empirical supplements, highly suggests this is the case. In every step of my life, there has been a girl that has outworked me, is more articulate than me, and is generally better than I am. I expect this to be the case forever and I would be concerned if it wasn’t.

What I’m trying to say is that girls are smart and their work ethic is probably what gets them there. Currently, females have the right to increase their confidence generally because they are already winning in an academic sense. It doesn’t appear they need to change their attitudes or habits, and slack off like the boys, in order to build confidence. Rather, they should take stock of what they have and realize they should trust themselves. If anything, this is a problem with us. Why are we promoting all the indolent men running around with unearned confidence rather than the people that have consistently outperformed them? There’s something ideologically fishy about telling females they need to be like “the guys” in order to succeed.

Diminishing returns are real, and I don’t doubt Damour’s experience with young women who exert inefficient effort to curb their anxiety about school. That will always be unproductive. Yet, I don’t think females have a poor strategy, but rather that we have been rewarding the wrong one. This, I feel, is a small component of a larger question surrounding women’s equality. Does the problem lie with the world being a certain way, or women? Is the problem with women not being confident/assertive/skilled enough (all improvable traits), or us having a narrow view of excellence?

If you know me, you know I am not an expert on anything, let alone gender issues. If you think I have something wrong, please tell me. I stand by my views, but I can be convinced otherwise.

Visibility = Value

Theory: what’s valued is what’s visible.

I understand this is almost exactly what Girard’s mimetic theory of desire is, but I arrived at it recently thinking about what types of behaviors are valued at different institutions.

Eloquence and general knowledge aren’t as valued here as traits as they were at my high school. I understand there are innumerable factors that could be influencing what I observe (not the least of which my bias and ignorance), but I think salience of behavior has explanatory power.

Consider a high school classroom. It has (hopefully) fewer than 30 kids, and, unless you whisper, not much can be said without others hearing it. Pedagogically, it’s also an interactive environment. Exchanges between students, and between teachers and students, are common and often about the class subject-matter. This means academic engagement is much more salient. When someone has an insight or a perspicuous point, they raise their hand, share, and everyone knows about it. Because clear thinking is (again, hopefully) rewarded in the classroom, students see there’s social value to being intellectually present during class.

Contrast this with a large college lecture. The most salient behavior your peers exhibit in this setting is note taking and silence. If they have a point to make or are wrestling with a valuable question, you will most likely never know about it. Even though students might engage in academic behavior after class and during office hours, this is almost never visible to the majority of students. They are most likely already out the door or believe the opportunity cost of going to office hours too high. The behavior isn’t visible, so it isn’t valued.

There is much more to thinking than the social value you (may) get from exhibiting it, but I feel like this principle explains some aspects large university culture. I am definitely not the first to think of this, but I believe the slogan has a grain of truth. Our own wants and desire (ontological status pending) are often so foreign to us. It’s much easier to look to the world for cues as to what we should value.